Testing, testing...1, 2, 3

For most of us, the month of May brings to mind images of flowers, sunshine, relaxing beach time and the coming summer.

For students, May is anticipated about as much as spring allergies and pollen.

May is the month of testing, and it’s not a happy time in classrooms.

High school students are already enduring a grueling spring marathon of Advanced Placement tests, SATs, ACTs, midterms and finals. Kids in grades 3 to 8, and 11th-graders, now have the state’s new Smarter Balanced assessments to contend with.

A clunky name to be sure, Smarter Balanced (doesn’t that sound like a butter?) is the state’s replacement for the former assessments known as STAR.

Based on assessing how well kids are learning under the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), these tests were developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).

The purpose of the tests is to provide teachers, parents and students with information on how well students are meeting expectations set by CCSS.

More acronyms: CAASPP, which stands for California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress System, is the overall system of assessments established on Jan. 1, 2014, of which SBAC is a part. And SBAC is based on CCSS. It’s alphabet soup time.

Complete information on the Smarter Balanced consortium and its assessments in English/language arts and mathematics can be found at www.smarterbalanced.org.

Opt-outs have been minimal in local districts, but pockets of communities across the state and country have seen opt-out rates as high as 50 to 70 percent.

As someone who once advocated for a complete boycott at Torrey Pines High School of the state’s previous STAR testing program in its early years, I am now conflicted.

My reasons then were that it did nothing for students, only gave local schools bragging rights (or the opposite, serving to embarrass schools that couldn’t make meaningful progress because they primarily served underprivileged kids), and ate up class time that could have (should have) been used for purposeful instruction.

I suppose those reasons still apply. But somehow it’s different this time. And that’s because of Common Core.

I like Common Core.

I know that’s not a popular thing to say these days, with the backlash across the country. But it makes sense to create a nationwide system that standardizes instruction across all states, raises rigor, and focuses on applied learning and skills that are not based on rote memorization.

It’s a fact that students are graduating from high school unprepared for college, the workplace, the military or other professional careers. Many straight-A students don’t know how to think. They haven’t learned how to apply knowledge, integrate subject matter, communicate their thoughts, or work in a cooperative environment.

We hear it over and over, from professors, employers, professionals and the government.

Common Core seeks to address these concerns.

But what’s happened is that Common Core has somehow been hijacked by those who believe it’s a left-wing conspiracy to usurp states’ rights or “dumb down” the curriculum.

Some history

Common Core standards were not invented by President Barack Obama or Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a smoke-filled room behind closed doors.

“Developed voluntarily and cooperatively by 48 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia, the Common Core State Standards offer schools, teachers, students, and parents clear, understandable, and consistent standards in English and math. The CCSS defines the knowledge and skills students should take away from their K-12 schooling to be successfully prepared for postsecondary and career opportunities. More than 43 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards.” (http://www.smarterbalanced.org/resources-events/faqs)

I discussed Common Core in an interview January 2014 with the superintendents of the Del Mar and Solana Beach school districts, Holly McClurg and Nancy Lynch, both of whom lauded the new standards.

They said governors, universities, business and industry came together in frustration over the lack of preparation they were seeing from high school graduates, even those with strong GPAs and high test scores, who often struggled when faced with real-life problems.

With narrower, deeper and more rigorous standards, CCSS was generated out of a new awareness that students are graduating high school without the skills and knowledge they need for success in college and career.

Lynch and McClurg said there has been a recognition for many years that the old system was not doing its best to prepare young people for new jobs, new skills and new careers — work that couldn’t have been imagined 20 years ago.

Having seen many education fads come and go, both superintendents were enthusiastic about the changes ahead and said this was definitely not the “flavor of the year.”

Both agreed that students now need to demonstrate their knowledge in ways that show a more multifaceted understanding of the nature of the lessons.

Lynch said one veteran teacher told her, “This is the most transformational time in education ever.” Both leaders emphatically agreed.

“They’ve added more depth and complexity,” Lynch said.

“This is by far superior,” McClurg said. “It’s all about good teaching and learning.”

All local districts are in the midst of SBAC testing this month.

Lynch and McClurg estimated that their third- through fifth-grade students are testing in math and English/language arts for about seven hours total. Plus, for fifth-graders, there’s an additional two hours of science testing.

Solana Beach and Del Mar also include sixth grade, which is considered middle school for testing purposes.

Middle school students, those in grades 6-8, test longer.

Del Mar reported 11 opt-outs for the four grades being tested, while Solana Beach reported five.

Rancho Santa Fe School District Superintendent Lindy Delaney said she has 13 out of 245 opting out of testing in grades 3-5 and 12 out of 243 opting out in grades 6-8. RSF serves students in grades K through eighth.

The tests are spread out over several weeks and are not timed, so students can take as long as they need.

Last week, I watched about 30 eighth-grade students at Earl Warren Middle School take a Smarter Balanced math test in the school’s computer lab.

It was fascinating, seeing students plugged into their electronic devices, taking tests in a “Brave New World” sort of way.

(Part Two, next week, focuses on San Dieguito Union High School District’s testing philosophies, and why these tests are different from what we’ve seen before.)

Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.

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